Time of the signs: Superficiality of the ‘self’

2013-05-01 10:00

Whatever happened to Oprah? We know she’s got a network, but isn’t it strange that this once omnipresent woman has slipped from the forefront of our minds so quickly?

When she was still a popular figure, she was the icon of a powerful message of self-improvement.

She made us believe we could have it all and not be corrupted if we focused on improving ourselves.

But there was something superficial about it. You sometimes got the feeling we just kept wishing in front of our TVs.

I don’t intend to bash Oprah. But I also believe in collective effort to improve everybody and to use our political action to do this.

Having grown up in a home full of political activists, the answer was always “joint action” to solve problems.

But I’ve come of age in what some might call the postmodern, postrevolution global culture where the message of “change” revolves almost exclusively around the “self”.

Herein lies a political and personal dilemma for us that perhaps we haven’t explored much as we look at all the misery in the world and the problems in our own lives, wishing we could change things.

This is the question: how much of what’s wrong can I “fix” by just focusing on myself and how much must I work with other people in order to fix everyone’s lot?

Beaming through our TV sets, this gospel constantly exposed us to the successes of superstars and the megarich.

Their wealth and happiness appeared to be within reach of all – what the rest of us lacked were the “tools” to unlock it, the “abilities” to tap into it.

Prophet Oprah seemed to be saying, “If I can do it, so should you. In fact, you must get rich and get happy.”

The methods also seemed foolproof. Whole forests have been turned into books with titles along the lines of Seven Steps To?.?.?.

In any case, even if we all applied the principles well, can capitalism create a society where everyone is a millionaire? Can capitalism produce a society where everyone becomes their own boss? Can we have billionaires without a mass of ordinary professionals and workers buying commodities and gadgets?

While for some time, self-help seemed to be about personal responsibility, it went out of kilter when The Secret, a bestselling self-help book, came out. The book equated us to mini-gods who could command the universe to bend at will to provide all our material needs.

Want a Jaguar? Call it forth from the universe.

Although there was some kind of spiritual veneer, it was pure narcissism. For all the faults of traditional religion and spiritualities, where they differ from this latter-day gospel of self, is they preach some concept of self-restraint, some idea that the individual bears moral responsibility beyond themselves, a cautioning that to “idolise” the self is the beginning of moral corruptibility.

I return again to Oprah. Could it be that the superficiality of the “self-improvement” message she preached meant her symbolic power in our lives would also be quickly forgotten?

I think of our most inspiring political and moral leaders and how deeply attached we remain to them, even if we never heard them make a speech or saw them on TV. The resilience of their names and revolutionary ideals, it seems, comes from how they focused on anything but the self.

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